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date: 26 April 2019

Slavery at the Cape

Summary and Keywords

Slavery was a mainstay of the labor force of the Cape Colony between its foundation by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1652 and abolition in 1834, by which date the Cape was under British rule. Slaves were transported to the Cape from a wide range of areas in the Indian Ocean world, including South and Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Some were owned by the VOC and labored on the Company farms, outposts, and docks. The majority were sold to settlers and worked as domestic servants in Cape Town or as laborers on the grain, wine, and pastoral farms of the Cape interior.

Throughout the 18th century slaves outnumbered settlers. Although there were few major revolts, individual resistance was widespread and desertion common. Some runaways joined indigenous groups in the Cape interior, while others formed more isolated maroon communities. Toward the end of the 18th century some slaves claimed individual rights, reflecting the influence of wider revolutionary movements in the Atlantic world. A revolutionary uprising took place in 1808, shortly after the abolition of the slave trade and the takeover of the colony by the British.

In the early 19th century slave resentment continued to grow, especially as a boom in wine production increased labor demands. In the 1820s and early 1830s abolitionist voices were heard in the colony, and slavery was ended at the same time as that in the British Caribbean and Mauritius. Unlike these other British colonies, Cape slaves largely continued to work as farm laborers, and their living and working conditions produced the continued impoverishment of farmworkers in the western Cape region.

Slaves played an important part in the creation of a distinctive creolized Cape culture, notably in the development of the Afrikaans language and Cape musical and culinary traditions. They were also responsible for the growth of Islam in Cape Town and its hinterland, which took a distinctive form influenced by its Southeast Asian origins.

Keywords: slavery, Cape Colony, Cape Town, Dutch East India Company (VOC), Indian Ocean, resistance, revolt, Islam, Afrikaans, emancipation

Slavery was a key institution in the Cape Colony under its rule by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) between 1652 and 1795 and under both Dutch and British administrations between 1795 and final slave emancipation in 1834. Slaves were the mainstay of the labor force, especially in Cape Town and its rural hinterland, and for most of the VOC period slaves outnumbered free settlers. Slavery thus had a profound impact on the demographic, economic and social characteristics of the early colony.

The Establishment of Slavery

A few domestic slaves were used by the officials of the VOC in the first years of settlement at Table Bay, but the inability of the small initial garrison to feed itself led commander Jan van Riebeeck to propose the establishment of settler farming with “a good many slaves” to “place them the sooner on their legs.”1 The first shipment of slaves was landed in 1658 and came from the Guinea coast; another was of Angolan slaves captured from the Portuguese. From then onward, however, slaves were brought to the Cape from regions in the Indian Ocean world where the VOC had trading influence. By 1700 there were 838 slaves altogether, of whom 668 were adult males.2

In requesting slaves for the Cape, van Riebeeck was following the practice of the VOC in its Asian settlements. In Dutch Batavia, Ceylon, and Melaka slaves were used for domestic labor, and on Ambon and in Sulawesi for agricultural work. In Asia the VOC lacked the political power to coerce local populations to work as cheap labor. At the Cape the indigenous hunter-gatherer and pastoralist Khoe and San populations were thought to be less suited for agricultural labor, and in the early years of the colony the VOC lacked the power to force them, dependent as they were on Khoe supplies of livestock. In later years the Cape indigenous population was decimated by smallpox and other diseases to which they had no immunity, and so, as in European colonies in the Americas, imported slaves instead provided the main source of labor. However, as Dutch colonial settlement expanded in the late 17th and 18th centuries, leading to expropriation of grazing land and the destruction of Khoe and San societies, a number of impoverished indigenes did work alongside slaves on settler farms, both as serfs and as wage laborers.

Slave numbers were relatively small in the early years: in 1711 there were just over 1,771 in total.3 The long-term future of the colony was still somewhat uncertain. In 1717, however, the VOC directors asked the Cape Council of Policy whether slavery should be continued or whether the immigration of European laborers should be encouraged. The response was unequivocal: slavery was cheaper than wage laborers, slaves were more controllable and could not establish themselves as independent farmers, and equally significant was that “no matter how poor a [European] person is, he will not accustom himself to perform the work of slaves.”4 One member of the Council warned that slaves presented a risk of desertion or rebellion and that free labor would ultimately be more economically beneficial, but he was overruled. It was only after the ending of VOC rule that such arguments were revived. As one commentator reported in 1797, it would have been better “if slavery had been indicted at the first settling of this Colony … Yet, the business is done. Slavery exists and is now even indispensable.”5

Both economic reasoning and social attitudes thus sealed the future of the Cape as a slave colony. Slave numbers thereafter grew steadily at an annual average rate of 2.56 percent, although there was a slowing of increase in the 1740s, when slave mortality rates were especially high.6 The total was recorded as 14,747 near the end of Company rule in 1793. This was doubtless an underestimate, since in 1806 there were 29,861, and a total of 36,169 by the time of emancipation in 1834.7

Slave Origins

An unusual feature of Cape slave society was the wide diversity of regions from which slaves were obtained, reflecting the shifting focus of VOC, and later British, trading and political influences in the Indian Ocean between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. Some slaves were imported on vessels sent by the VOC from the Cape to Madagascar specifically for this purpose, and the Company also obtained slaves from its trading post at Rio de la Goa in the 1720s and along the Mozambique coast. The voyages to Madagascar were sporadic and had varied success. More than forty were made altogether, but the lack of VOC political influence in the island meant that the Company was dependent on the willingness of local rulers to trade slaves with them, usually in return for guns, brandy, or specie. In this the VOC competed with other European traders, such as the English and French. It is estimated that around 4,300 slaves were obtained altogether in this way.8 Most of them were retained by the Company at the Cape for their own use.

The majority of slaves, however, were brought to the Cape in small groups, or as individuals, aboard ships returning to Europe from the VOC trading posts in South and Southeast Asia. They were usually owned by ships’ officers or passengers who obtained them in Asia and then sold them at profit at the Cape. Because of this haphazard system, there are no records of their landing, but it is known that they were sold to private individuals within the colony. As a result of the system of slave naming which included a toponym indicating the place where each was obtained, there is evidence from household inventories and auction records of the range of their geographical origins and how these varied over time.

Overall, approximately one-quarter of the slaves imported to the Cape came from each of these regions: South Asia (India and Ceylon), Southeast Asia (mainly the regions of later Indonesia), Madagascar, and the African mainland (Fig. 1).9 However, there were significant variables in this distribution over time.

Slavery at the CapeClick to view larger

Figure 1. Main routes of slave imports to the Cape Colony.

Source: Nigel Worden, The Chains That Bind Us (University of Cape Town Teaching and Learning Resource Centre, 1992).

In the decades before the 1730s, the majority of slaves came from Bengal, the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of India, and Ceylon. These were areas from which the VOC also obtained slaves for its Indian, Ceylonese, and Southeast Asian trading posts. Some such slaves were doubtless brought to the Cape on ships sailing directly from Ceylon, but the majority came from the Company’s administrative headquarters in Batavia, since many South Asians were enslaved there.10

Sometimes, however, the transfer from South Asia was more direct. One of the rare detailed cases we know about illustrates such a route: a ten-year old girl named China was sold by her mother “because of her utter poverty and lack of means of livelihood” to a VOC employee in the trading post at Nagapattinam, and after three transfers of ownership and a change of name she was finally shipped to the Cape, where she ended up as “Rosa” working at Groot Constantia wine estate outside Cape Town.11 Slave supplies from South Asia were often directly connected to a “famine-slave cycle” by which they were obtained through sale at a time of economic and social crisis.12 China-Rosa’s case indicates such a process.

Slave imports from India lessened when VOC trading in Bengal and the Coromandel coast diminished in the face of rivalry from other European traders toward the end of the 18th century. At the same time, the number of ships sailing directly from Ceylon to the Cape declined markedly, since most were now directed to Batavia as part of the VOC’s involvement in intra-Asian trade. As a result, South Asian slaves at the Cape after the early 18th century were outnumbered by slaves from Southeast Asia. These were brought to the Cape directly from Batavia on the return fleets and so were a filter from the larger slave population of the VOC’s Asian administrative and trading center. Their specific toponyms closely reflect VOC activities in the region.

“Boegies” or “Makassar” toponyms predominate, as a result of the VOC’s active slave trading and raiding in the Sulawesi region from the late 17th century, which drew on the existing activities of indigenous slave traders.13 Their visibility in Cape Town and its surrounds was marked. The Bugis language was spoken—and written—in Cape Town, and the combination of Bugis slave literacy and adherence to Islam was cause of considerable concern to the Cape authorities.14 Secondary regions of importance for Batavian slave supplies also figure among Cape slave names. These include in particular Nias, Bali, Sumbawa, and the islands of Timor and Ternate.

At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, a further important shift took place as the mainland African continent became the primary source of slave imports to the Cape. This was the result of the development of private slave trading from the colony in the 1790s, especially during the period of the first British occupation (1795–1803), and also with the availability of slaves transported by Portuguese and Brazilian traders en route from Southeast Africa to Brazil.

Private traders operated from Cape Town in the period of the first British occupation, after VOC slaving operations had ended in the late 1780s. Their sources were the coast of Mozambique and Mozambique Island, thus leading to Cape mercantile participation in the burgeoning slave trade of the region. Despite the diffidence of the British authorities at the Cape, who were aware of the growing anti-slave trade sentiments in London, some 7,200 slaves were imported into the colony by Cape merchants or purchased in the town from passing Portuguese traders between 1797 and 1808.15

Recent research has also exposed the existence of a “middle passage” from Madagascar, Mozambique, and the East African coast undertaken by French, Spanish, and Portuguese traders who brought slaves to Cape Town from the 1770s, a trade in forced labor which continued well into the decades after 1808 and indeed after the ending of slavery itself in the 1830s.16 In addition, “prize negroes” or African slaves captured after 1808 by British patrols were indentured at the Cape. A further possibility is that some African slaves were brought to the Cape from Mauritius as part of the active East African-Malagasy-Mascarenes slaving networks, where they were sold by traders who returned with Cape agrarian produce needed to feed the rapidly increasing number of slaves on the Mauritian sugar plantations.

The result of these shifts for the composition of the Cape slave population was striking. By the period of British rule, the colony was coming more to resemble Mauritius, with its predominance of slaves of Malagasy and Mozambican origin rather than the VOC ports of South and Southeast Asia. The Cape’s slave networks were now detached from their Asian roots and instead firmly embedded in the African and southwest Indian Ocean nexus.

Although indigenous South Africans were not formally enslaved, the existence of slavery in the Cape influenced other types of labor use. Many Khoe worked alongside slaves on settler farms in conditions that differed little from those of slaves, although they were not legally the property of their employers. Khoe and San captured in raids were used as indentured labor, especially in the eastern Cape from the 1770s, and the historian Susan Newton-King has argued that such inboekselings were effectively slaves.17 Most were women and children, although there were also some men. Slave raiding also took place in the Delagoa Bay region in the 1820s, and some slaves were taken by the trekboers from the Cape into the interior in the 1830s.

Living and Working Conditions

Slave life was dominated by work: “I am always working, I need to rest sometimes,” complained one farm slave in 1759.18 The Cape economy differed from that of the slave plantation societies of the American colonies. Slaves instead worked in domestic households in Cape Town and the smaller towns and villages of its hinterland, such as Stellenbosch and Swellendam, as well as on the arable grain and wine farms of the southwestern Cape. Ninety percentof all arable farmers owned slaves. Holdings varied in size, but most settler farmers owned fewer than ten, and holdings of more than twenty slaves were exceptional.19 Slaves carried out all the major tasks of farming, many of which were arduous in a premechanical age (Fig. 2). Particularly heavy labor demands came at planting and harvesting periods, and threshing and grape pressing were carried out at the hottest times of the year. Some slaves also worked as shepherds and herders on the cattle and sheep ranches of the pastoralist interior, although the indigenous Khoe and San were more often used as indentured or casual workers on these frontier farms.

Slavery at the CapeClick to view larger

Figure 2. Cape slave hoeing under supervision.

Source: Pieter Kolb, Caput Bonae Spei Hodiernum (Nurnberg, 1719).

In Cape Town, most slaves were owned by the VOC and were housed in barrack-like accommodation at the Company Slave Lodge. They worked at Cape Town’s harbor and quarry as well as on Company woodcutting and cattle posts outside the town. Most settler households in Cape Town also possessed slaves who carried out all domestic labor, such as fetching water from pumps, cooking, and cleaning, as well as hawking fruit and vegetables in the local marketplace at Greenmarket Square (Fig. 3) on behalf of their owners. Female slaves also washed clothes at the Platteklip stream on the slopes of Table Mountain for private households, the military garrison at the Castle, and the ships anchored in Table Bay.

Slavery at the CapeClick to view larger

Figure 3. Johannes Rach, Greenmarket Square, Cape Town, 1762.

By permission of the Western Cape Archives and Records Services (M166).

There is some debate among historians about how Cape slaves were treated, and what factors should be taken into account when assessing that treatment. As in other European colonial slave societies of the period, slaves in the VOC period had very few legal rights and owners had almost complete authority over them. They were obliged to obey their owners and could be physically punished by them, notoriously with the sjambok animal-hide whip. Female slaves in particular were vulnerable to sexual exploitation by owners and their families. Some of the most sadistic maltreatment led to condemnation from others in the settler community, because it tainted the reputation of all of them and because it made violent slave retaliation more likely.20 Occasionally slaveowners were fined for abusing their slaves, but in remoter rural districts this was rarely detected. Slave evidence was routinely rejected as unreliable, especially when it was given against owners.21 Punishments for slaves who disobeyed their owners were severe, and any slave who hit or attacked his owner or another settler could be sentenced to death.

However, as the historian Robert Shell has argued, slavery could not be maintained by whips and chains alone.22 Psychological controls could be as effective as physical ones, especially for slaves who lived on isolated farms with few other slaves around them, cut off from their kin and cultural roots. Many such slaves were completely dependent on their owners for food, shelter, and survival. Some slaves, especially those females who worked in the households, may indeed have identified themselves over time with their owners’ families. This, Shell suggests, was especially true for women who acted as wet nurses to settler children and who formed personal bonds of dependency with their owners. Furthermore, over time more and more Cape slaves were born in the colony, since the children of slave women inherited slave status. These “Cape-born” slaves knew no other world than that of their owners, to whom they were deferential. This argument does not imply that slaves were treated equally. They were always considered as inferiors, alongside children, and the relationship between slave and owner was heavily paternalistic. Paternalism might have been less violent than open coercion, but it was equally exploitative.

Other factors need to be considered in assessing the treatment of slaves.23 Living conditions varied greatly. On larger farms slaves were housed in special living quarters; at Martin Melck’s large farm each of his 200 slaves “had a separate brick building to sleep in,” but this was exceptional. Most slaves slept in attics and kitchens or rudimentary rooms with wooden bunks. Some Cape Town slaves were given regular sets of new clothes and livery, but the majority of slaves on farms had only coarse and tattered clothing. In 1808 one Russian visitor (who would have been accustomed to the sight of impoverished serfs) remarked that “the slaves in this colony are kept very poorly—they are dressed in rags, even those who serve at the table of their masters.”24

The majority of Cape slaves were male, and there was thus a major gender imbalance. There were four male slaves to one female in 1738. Slave marriage was not recognized under Cape law, although emotional and sexual relationships between them were often possible. Even where family ties were forged, however, couples could be broken up and children sold. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, a higher proportion of slaves were Cape-born and the balance was redressed to a gender ratio of 1.18 males to one female in 1834. More extended slave kinship networks emerged in the 19th century. Families, however, were often separated from each other among differing owners as a result of sales.

High mortality levels also led to kinship instability. Epidemics of smallpox hit the Cape every thirty or forty years, and other diseases such as measles were particularly destructive. A major mortality crisis among slaves took place in the 1740s, probably caused by measles. In 1747 the Company decreed a day of prayer in all churches of the colony to atone for sins which had led “Almighty God … to visit upon us for some period of time the heavy burden of a great number of deaths amongst our slaves.”25

A few slaves acquired small amounts of money or livestock from earnings permitted by their owners, but the majority lacked any resources of their own. Only a few acquired freedom—some 900 in the VOC period, although manumission rates increased in Cape Town in the early 19th century. Most freed slaves were urban women, some of whom married free settlers, especially soldiers and lower-class inhabitants of the town. A few ex-slaves obtained land or property, but the majority of “free blacks,” as they were called, remained at the bottom of the social ladder.

There were some notable exceptions to this. A minority of free blacks were able to accumulate wealth, and some of them also became slaveowners. For example, the Cape Town slave Willem van de Caab was freed on the death of his owner in 1724, subsequently purchased a farm, and by the time of his death in 1750 owned four slaves of his own. Willem Stolts, a slave in Stellenbosch, was granted freedom in the will of his owner in 1724 and owned eleven slaves and a sizable wine farm by the time that he died around 1750.26 Angela van Bengal, who belonged to Jan van Riebeeck, was freed in 1666, married a Cape burgher, and after his death became the owner of a large property in Table Valley. One of her children, Anna de Konigh, later inherited Groot Constantia, one of the colony’s largest wine estates.27 Race and slave origins as the historian Wayne Dooling has argued, were “not an absolute barrier to success in the first half of the eighteenth century,” although such opportunities seem to have lessened in later decades.28

Resistance and Rebellion

During the VOC period, the Cape did not experience slave rebellions and uprisings of the kind that took place in the Caribbean and American slave colonies. Some historians have argued that this shows that slaves were better treated than in the plantation colonies, or that they were more loyal to their owners as result of paternalistic ties. Others have pointed out that structural factors inhibited rebellion, such as the small size of slave holdings and the linguistic and cultural diversity of slaves who came from such varied regions of origin.

However, there is ample evidence that Cape slaves could and did resist their enslavement in a variety of ways. Arson was relatively common, especially of crops and vineyards just before harvesting time. Forms of passive resistance, such as working slowly or damaging tools, were widespread. However, the main form of resistance, and one that caused much concern to owners and to the authorities, was desertion. The first recorded escape was in 1655, when Anthony of Madagascar ran away from the early settlement and was never seen again. In a colony where slaves were widely dispersed, often on remote farms, running away was a frequent response.

Some desertions were spontaneous, usually after conflict had arisen between slave and owner and in an attempt to escape retributive punishment. Usually such slaves were recaptured, especially if they obtained no support from other slaves. Other escapes were planned in advance, comprising small groups of deserters who obtained guns and ammunition as well as food supplies before leaving. Malagasy slaves were particularly prone to this, as they hoped they could eventually get back to their homeland. One notable example of Malagasy collective resistance took place in 1766, when slaves being transported to the Cape on board the ship Meermin rose up in mutiny and overpowered the officers and crew.29 In 1751 a group of Malagasy and Southeast Asian slaves who had been imprisoned on Robben Island plotted to overcome a sailing boat, sailing it first to Madagascar and then on to Batavia.30

There were some well-known places of refuge within the colony where deserters gathered. Table Mountain was one, and the fires of runaways could sometimes be seen from the town. Mountain refugees obtained food, clothing, and sometimes guns and ammunition from town slaves in exchange for firewood. Another was Cape Hanglip, within sight of the heart of the colony, where runaways survived by fishing in False Bay, raided farmsteads, and attacked wagons carrying supplies on the main road from Cape Town into the eastern interior. They evaded attempts at recapture by hiding in caves and rocky shelters along the coast. A maroon community of slave runaways existed at Hanglip for a large part of the 18th century.31

Other slaves escaped from the colony altogether, becoming part of the mixed Oorlam and Griqua societies of the Orange River region and beyond or joining the Xhosa chiefdoms in the eastern Cape region. A few managed to escape as stowaways on board ships moored in Table Bay.

These examples of desertion reflected a rejection of slavery and a desire to get away from it, but not a revolutionary challenge to the existence of a slave society at the Cape. Toward the end of the 18th century, however, new challenges from Cape slaves began to emerge. These were influenced both by revolutionary developments elsewhere in the Atlantic world and doubtless also by the fracturing of colonial power at the time of the Cape Patriot movement in the 1780s, threats of invasion by the British, and the rapid changes of regime after the collapse of the Company in 1795.

Numerous complaints were made by colonists in the late 1780s and early 1790s that their slaves would not greet them with suitable deference or, worse, refused to obey orders. One example can stand for many. When the farmer Daniel Malan ordered his slave Cesar van Madagascar to get to work in the fields early one winter morning in 1793, Cesar replied, “I was awake early enough, but because the weather was bad, I did not want to get up, and I must have my right to speak.”32 Resistance to orders by slaves was commonplace, either by passive means such as slow or inefficient work, or more overt forms such as physical violence or desertion. All slaves recognized, however, that this was to break the codes of slave law and to risk severe punishment. Yet now Cesar claimed the ability to argue against his owner’s orders as a right.

Worse was to come from the slaveowners’ perspective. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, a year after the British finally took over the colony. Rumors spread that slavery itself was also to end. In 1808 a group of some 300 slaves in the Swartland grain region north of Cape Town rose up in revolt, demanding their freedom from the governor as a right and threatening to “fight themselves free” if it was refused. They were encouraged by the reports of visiting soldiers and sailors that slavery was being abolished elsewhere in the Atlantic world. Their leader, a Cape Town slave named Louis of Mauritius, went to great lengths to obtain a uniform that exactly matched that of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the heroic organizer of the successful Haitian revolt of the 1790s. The actions of the rebels demonstrated their revolutionary intentions. They took their owners prisoner, insisted on addressing them in familiar rather than respectful forms of the Dutch language, and destroyed papers that they believed recorded their enslavement. The 1808 rebellion was swiftly crushed and its leaders executed, but it marked a turning point in slave assertiveness.33

Towards Emancipation

The early 19th century saw important changes in the Cape colony as a result of its takeover by the British. Some of these fundamentally affected slaves.

Economic changes resulted from the removal of trading restrictions and the emergence of a commercial sector in Cape Town. Slavery became less significant in the town while wage labor increased, and urban slave numbers fell steadily.34 Moreover, as colonial settlement expanded in the eastern Cape a more mobile labor force was needed. Hence merchants and new commercial pastoral farmers began to oppose slavery and opt for cheap wage labor.

Another reason for the decline of urban slavery was the increasing demand for slaves in the rural hinterland. There were two reasons for this. First, the ending of the slave trade in 1807 reduced slave supplies and increased their prices. Slaves were in increasing demand on the farms where there was no alternative labor supply, and urban slaveowners were able to profit from their sale upcountry. Second, there was a boom in the wine sector, caused by the opening of the British market during and in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. More vines were planted and more slave laborers were needed. Many farmers mortgaged their land in order to purchase more slaves.35

The British authorities at the Cape attempted to alleviate the resulting labor shortage both by indenturing “prize negroes” captured from foreign trading ships and by encouraging free immigration from Europe.36 Such schemes were incompatible. Immigrants were reluctant to enter a labor force tainted by slavery and offering low wages. Some liberal thinkers, writing most forcefully through the columns of the South African Commercial Advertiser and encouraged by the growth of abolitionism in Britain, began to argue that the existence of slavery was inhibiting economic growth in the colony and was both inhumane and regressive.37 Their arguments became more persuasive when British preferential tariffs were removed in 1825 and cheaper European wines were imported into Britain. This ended the boom in the Cape wine industry and caused economic collapse for many mortgaged wine farmers. Slave-based production was no longer such a profitable enterprise.

At the same time in the 1820s and early 1830s, “amelioration” laws were enacted as a result of abolitionist pressures from Britain, similar to those in other slave colonies of the British Empire. Regulations now controlled hours of work, food, and clothing. In an attempt to encourage self-reproduction of a labor force, slaves were now permitted to marry and children could no longer be sold separately from their mothers. The ruling that caused most resentment among slaveowners was the restriction of domestic punishment; a minor riot broke out in Stellenbosch in 1831 when demands were made that they provide detailed records of punishments inflicted on their slaves. An official Protector of Slaves was appointed in Cape Town in 1826, with assistants in the rural districts, to ensure that these regulations were put into effect. Slaves could bring complaints to these authorities if the regulations were broken, and owners could be fined if these charges were upheld.

As one historian has argued, these regulations placed the paternalist structure of Cape slave society “under siege.”38 The awareness of rights expressed by Cape slaves at the end of the 18th century now found a means of expression through the office of the Protector of Slaves. Despite the logistical difficulties of laying complaints for remoter farm slaves, the authorities received a steady stream in the 1820s and early 1830s. At the same time owners sent “refractory and ill-behaved slaves” to the Protector “to instill a better line of conduct.”39 The internal control system of Cape slave society was eroding.

Striking evidence of this was an uprising that took place on a remote farm in the Bokkeveld in 1825. It was led by Galant, a slave who was born on the farm and had had grown up alongside his later owner. This was a classic example of a paternalistic slave community. However, news of legal reform arrived at the farm in newspapers, and rumors that farmers were denying slaves their rightful freedom spread. Galant complained several times to the Protector of Slaves that he was being maltreated and that his own children were abused, but with little effect. Finally, all paternalistic control on the farm collapsed. Galant and his fellow slaves attempted to take over the farm, killed their owners, and demanded their rightful liberty.40

As in 1808, the 1825 Bokkeveld uprising was swiftly suppressed, but the sentiments expressed by its participants severely alarmed slaveowners throughout the colony. This, combined with the economic downturn in the slave-based economy, meant that when slave emancipation was enforced through Westminster legislation in 1833, there was only muted opposition from farmers, a contrast to the opposition of Caribbean and Mauritian slave plantation owners. Their assent was greatly encouraged by the provision of financial compensation and by the provisions of the emancipation act that ensured slaves remained tied to their owners for a further four years of “apprenticeship,” without pay. A number of frontier farmers did leave the colony in protest and trekked further into the interior, some taking their slaves with them, in an episode that later acquired iconic significance in the development of Afrikaner nationalist history. But the large majority of ex-slaves remained in the colony and were to have a lasting impact on its social and cultural structure.

The Legacy of Cape Slavery

Many slaves left their owners when they were finally free to move on December 1, 1838. A large number of freed slaves married their partners and were now able to form nuclear households. Some found a livelihood in Cape Town or the smaller rural towns, and a few moved to mission stations. However, their lack of land and capital meant that the large majority remained dependent on the farms for employment as either permanent or seasonal workers with low wages, although women largely withdrew from field work.41 In 1841 the Masters and Servants Ordinance perpetuated controls of the slave system by enforcing labor contracts with physical penalties for desertion, and this provided the basis for later more stringent labor regulations.42 The aftermath of Cape slavery thus produced a rural proletariat that continues to be the mainstay of the rural western Cape to this day. This is not to say that ex-slaveowners all continued to thrive. The historian Wayne Dooling has argued that many faced insolvency in the period after the 1830s, and that slave emancipation entailed a significant period of economic readjustment in the western Cape rural districts. Nonetheless, there was no major shift in the class structure of post-emancipation Cape society.43

Slavery also played a major role in the racial structuring of the post-emancipation colony. Abolition, not slavery itself, argues the historian Rick Watson, was the key factor in the entrenchment of racism in the Cape Colony, as racial justifications emerged among settlers for the continued subordination of ex-slave laborers.44 The removal of legal distinctions between slave and free led instead to categorizations of its population that prefigured the racial ordering of the 20th century. Descendents of slaves were neither “white” nor “Native” (as the indigenous Bantu-speaking black inhabitants were described) but instead were identified as “coloured,” together with the descendants of the Khoe and San. In the later 19th and 20th centuries, a Cape “coloured” social and political identity became increasingly evident, although its association with slavery was largely forgotten as Cape Coloureds strove for equal acceptance in an increasingly racially segregated society.45

Nonetheless, the cultural legacy of slavery remained. Islam, brought to the Cape by political exiles and slaves from South and Southeast Asia in the late 17th century and greatly increased by subsequent conversions of slaves in the colony, remained a distinctive feature of the Cape, especially in Cape Town.46 Creolized forms of Dutch were in part the product of slave language usage, and Afrikaans in the Cape today remains the predominant language of slave descendants. Cape cuisine is strongly influenced by Southeast Asian cooking methods and ingredients brought by slaves, and the characteristic folk music and song of the region owe much to slave origins.47

During the apartheid years, association with a slave legacy was played down. This was not only because of the domination of white settlers’ historical perspectives in school curricula and public history. A stress on the exoticism of Cape “Malays” associated their past with political exiles rather than with slaves. Slavery was also difficult to incorporate into anti-apartheid political and social identities that stressed indigenous oppression, because slaves were outsiders without, for example, claims to land or African identity. In the post-apartheid era this neglect has begun to change, and slave heritage is becoming more widely recognized.48 It is clear that the history and demography of the western Cape, a product largely of slavery, has produced a political and cultural heritage distinct from that of the rest of South Africa.

Discussion of the Literature

Cape slavery was long ignored by South African historians. Most histories before the 1970s celebrated the achievements of colonists to the exclusion of everyone else, while radical revisionist historians in the 1970s and 1980s stressed the seismic importance of the mineral revolution in the late 19th century and neglected South Africa’s preindustrial past.

A breakthrough came with the publication of Robert Ross’s Cape of Torments (1983) and Nigel Worden’s Slavery in Dutch South Africa (1985). Both authors stressed the coercive nature of Cape slavery, focusing on resistance, violence and the central role of slavery in the creation of a racially structured society long before the mineral revolution. Both were also responding to the rise of mass protest in South Africa in the 1980s and were influenced by U.S. and British historical approaches that stressed agency and “history from below.” Some of this work, together with the pathbreaking research of James Armstrong on the slave trade between the Cape and Madagascar, appeared in The Shaping of South African Society, an edited volume of essays on the Cape colony first published in 1979 and fundamentally revised in 1989, a text that greatly influenced university history curricula in the subsequent decade.49

In the late 1980s and 1990s, graduate students at the University of Cape Town produced numerous studies of specific aspects of Cape slavery. These included Andrew Bank on urban slavery in the 19th century, Wayne Dooling on amelioration in Graaff-Reinet and also on law, reputation, and community among Stellenbosch slaveowners, Patricia van der Spuy on gendered approaches to slavery, Kirsten McKenzie on British slaveowners in Cape Town, and Michael Reidy on late 18th and early 19th century slave trading.50 Further studies followed on emancipation and its aftermath by Pamela Scully, Kerry Ward, and Helen Ludlow.51

A major development came with the publication of Robert Shell’s Children of Bondage in 1994. Based on both statistical data and contemporary accounts, Shell made several novel arguments, the most significant of which was the importance of psychological control over slaves through paternalism and the creolization of the Cape slave population in the late 18th century. Shell’s study was based on doctoral research undertaken in the United States and was strongly influenced by the cliometric school of North American slave historiography.

Awareness of Cape slavery by North American historians had originated in the comparative work on U.S. and South African history by George Frederickson published in 1981.52 Comparisons between the two societies continued in major studies by Rick Watson on abolitionism and on the roots of racism in the 19th century.53 Other American historians have focused on this period, not least because this is when English-language sources become available. These include Clifton Crais’s work on the eastern Cape and a significant monograph by John Mason that used the records of the Protector of Slaves in London to reconstruct the experiences of Cape slaves and to argue for their active role in bringing about emancipation.54

A major study that has appeared more recently is Wayne Dooling’s Slavery, Emancipation and Colonial Rule in South Africa, published in 2007. Building on his earlier work on slaveholder communities, Dooling bridged the divide between the VOC and the British Cape, arguing that slavery underpinned the emergence of a wealthy settler farming class, but emancipation weakened its economic hegemony and led to a restructuring of Cape agrarian economies in the later 19th century. Perhaps surprisingly for an institution that was fundamentally a labor system, the economics of Cape slavery has otherwise been relatively neglected. However, recent quantitative work by economists at the University of Stellenbosch, led by Johan Fourie, signals a revival of interest in the early Cape economy, including the economics of slave labor.55

Current academic work on slavery at the Cape lacks the vibrancy of earlier scholarship, although one notable development has been a greater awareness of its transnational context and the continued links that connected Cape slaves to their Indian Ocean roots.56 A significant new finding is the scale and scope of slave trading between southeastern Africa and the Cape at the turn of the 19th century, which was not dissimilar to the trans-Atlantic “middle passage.”57

On the other hand, there has been a growing interest in slavery outside academia. Cape family and community historians have reflected the recent increased public awareness of slave heritage. This was first evident in writings on Cape Islam by the community historian and linguist Achmat Davids, and it continues in more recent newspaper articles, novels, plays, and public commemorations.58 December 1, the anniversary of slave emancipation in 1834, is now annually celebrated in Cape Town.

Primary Sources

In contrast to trans-Atlantic colonial slave societies, there are very few personal narratives or private slaveowner records for the Cape colony. However, rich archival sources produced by the VOC and British administrations do exist. The Western Cape Archives and Record Services in Roeland Street, Cape Town, contains annual census rolls that include slave numbers, household inventories, and auction records that list slave names, as well as voluminous records of the Council of Justice that include details of slave life and forms of resistance.59 Household inventories have been transcribed and are available online, and a selection of criminal court records has been published and translated into English.60 The Slave Office records in the Western Cape Archives include the reports of the Protector of Slaves. Some of these records are duplicated in the Nationaal Archief in The Hague and in the National Archives in London.

Further Reading

Armstrong, James, and Nigel Worden. “The Slaves, 1652–1834.” In The Shaping of South African Society, 16521840. Edited by Richard Elphick and Hermann Giliomee, 109–183. 2d ed. Cape Town: Longman, 1989.Find this resource:

Dooling, Wayne. Slavery, Emancipation and Colonial Rule in South Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Mason, John. Social Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Ross, Robert. Cape of Torments: Slavery and Resistance in South Africa. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.Find this resource:

Schoeman, Karel. Early Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, 16521717. Pretoria: Protea, 2007.Find this resource:

Schoeman, Karel. Portrait of a Slave Society: The Cape of Good Hope, 17171795. Pretoria: Protea, 2012.Find this resource:

Scully, Pamela. Liberating the family?: Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.Find this resource:

Shell, Robert. Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 16521838. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Watson, Rick. The Slave Question: Liberty and Property in South Africa. Hanover, NH and London: Heinemann, 1990.Find this resource:

Watson, Rick. Slave Emancipation and Racial Attitudes in Nineteenth-Century South Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Worden, Nigel. Slavery in Dutch South Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Worden, Nigel. “The Changing Politics of Slave Heritage in the Western Cape, South Africa.” Journal of African History 50 (2009): 23–40.Find this resource:

Worden, Nigel. “Cape Slaves in the Paper Empire of the VOC.” Kronos 40 (2014): 23–44.Find this resource:

Worden, Nigel, and Clifton Crais, eds. Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) Nigel Worden, Slavery in Dutch South Africa (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 6.

(2.) Ibid., 7.

(3.) Ibid., 11.

(4.) Maurits Pasques de Chavonnes, The Reports of Chavonnes and His Council, and of Van Imhoff, on the Cape (Cape Town: van Riebeeck Society, 1918), 121.

(5.) W. S. van Ryneveld, Replies to the Questions on the Importation etc. of Slaves into the Colony; Proposed by His Excellency the Earl of Macartney, 29 November 1797 (Cape Town: African Studies Library, University of Cape Town), article 6.

(6.) Wayne Dooling, Slavery, Emancipation and Colonial Rule in South Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007), 28–29.

(7.) James Armstrong and Nigel Worden, “The Slaves, 1652–1834,” in The Shaping of South African Society, 16521840, eds. Richard Elphick and Hermann Giliomee (Cape Town: Longman, 1989), 133.

(8.) Ibid., 112.

(9.) Robert Shell, Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 16521838 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 41.

(10.) H. Niemeijer, Batavia: Een Koloniale Samenleving in de 17de Eeuw (Amsterdam: Balans, 2005), 53.

(11.) Western Cape Archives and Record Services, Roeland Street, Cape Town (WCARS), Miscellaneous 49, Serrurier papers, file (n), transfer deeds of slaves, 1763–1766.

(12.) Markus Vink, “The World’s Oldest Trade: Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of World History 14.2 (2003): 142.

(13.) Rik van Wilie, “Patterns of Slave Trading and Slavery in the Dutch Colonial World, 1596–1863,” in Dutch Colonialism, Migration and Cultural Heritage, ed. Gert Oostindie (Leiden: KITLV, 2008), 196–197.

(14.) Robert Ross and Sirtjo Koolhof, “Upas, September and the Bugis at the Cape,” Archipel 70 (2005): 281–308.

(15.) Michael C. Reidy, “The Admission of Slaves and ‘Prize Negroes’ into the Cape colony, 1797–1818” (MA diss., University of Cape Town, 1997), 111.

(16.) Patrick Harries, “Middle Passages of the Southwest Indian Ocean: A Century of Forced Immigration from Africa to the Cape of Good Hope,” Journal of African History 55.2 (2014): 173–190; and Patrick Harries, “Slavery, Indenture and Migrant Labor: Maritime Immigration from Mozambique to the Cape, c. 1780–1880,” African Studies 73.3 (2014): 323–340.

(17.) Susan Newton-King, “The Enemy Within,” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony, eds. Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 225–270.

(18.) WCARS, 1/STB 3/11, unpaginated, testimony of Andries Nolte, 14 October 1759.

(19.) Armstrong and Worden, “The Slaves,” 137–138.

(20.) Wayne Dooling, “‘The Good Opinion of Others’: Law, Slavery and Community in the Cape Colony, c. 1760–1830,” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony, eds. Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 25–43.

(21.) Dooling, Slavery, 48–49 and 71.

(22.) Robert Shell, “The Family and Slavery at the Cape, 1680–1808,” in The Angry Divide: Social and Economic History of the Western Cape, eds. Wilmot James and Mary Simons (Cape Town: David Philip, 1989), 20.

(23.) Eugene D. Genovese, “The Treatment of Slaves in Different Countries: Problems in the Application of the Comparative Method,” in Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History, eds. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969), 202–210.

(24.) Armstrong and Worden, “The Slaves,” 145–146.

(25.) Worden, Slavery in Dutch South Africa, 60–63.

(26.) Dooling, Slavery, 34–35.

(27.) Karel Schoeman, Early Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, 16521717 (Pretoria: Protea, 2007), 352–369.

(28.) Dooling, Slavery, 35.

(29.) Dan Sleigh and Pieter Westra, The Taking of the Slaver Meermin (Cape Town: Africana, 2013).

(30.) Paul Truter, “The Robben Island Slave Rebellion of 1751: A Study of Convict Experience at the Cape of Good Hope,” Kronos 31 (2005): 34–49.

(31.) Robert Ross, Cape of Torments (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 54–72.

(32.) WCARS, CJ 447, Testimony of Daniel Malan, undated, f.580 and Interrogation of Cesar van Madagascar, 17 July 1793, Article 11, f.585–586.

(33.) Nigel Worden, “‘Armed with Ostrich Feathers’: Cultural Revolution and the Cape Slave Uprising of 1808,” in War, Empire and Slavery, 17701830, eds. Richard Bessel, Nicholas Guyatt, and Jane Rendall (Houndsmills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 121–138.

(34.) Andrew Bank, “The Erosion of Urban Slavery at the Cape,” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony, eds. Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 79–98.

(35.) Dooling, Slavery, 83–84; and Mary I. Rayner, “Wine and Slaves: The Failure of an Export Economy and the Ending of Slavery in the Cape Colony, South Africa, 1806–1834” (PhD diss., Duke University, 1986).

(36.) Christopher Saunders, “‘Free, Yet Slaves’: Prize Negroes at the Cape Revisited,” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony, eds. Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 99–115.

(37.) Richard L. Watson, The Slave Question: Liberty and Property in South Africa (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1990); and L. Meltzer, “Emancipation, Commerce and the Role of John Fairbairn’s Advertiser” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony, eds. Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 169–199.

(38.) John Mason, “Paternalism under Siege: Slavery in Theory and Practice during the Era of Reform, c. 1825 through Emancpation,” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony, eds. Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 45–77.

(39.) Armstrong and Worden, “The Slaves,” 167.

(40.) Ross, Cape of Torments, 105–116.

(41.) Pamela Scully, Liberating the Family?: Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the rural Western Cape, South Africa, 18231853 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997).

(42.) Colin Bundy, “The Abolition of the Masters and Servants Act,” South African Labor Bulletin 2 (1975): 37–46.

(43.) Dooling, Slavery.

(44.) Richard L. Watson, Slave Emancipation and Racial Attitudes in Nineteenth-Century South Africa (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(45.) Mohamed Adhikari, Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community (Athens and Cape Town: Ohio University Press, 2005).

(46.) Shell, Children of Bondage, 356–362; and Kerry Ward, Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 179–239.

(47.) Gabeba Baderoon, Regarding Muslims from Slavery to Apartheid (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2014), esp. 46–65; and A. M. van der Wal, “Singing of Slavery, Performing the Past: Folk Songs of the Cape Coloured Community as Cultural Memory of the South African Slave Past, 1657–present” (PhD diss., Utrecht University, 2016).

(48.) Nigel Worden, “The Changing Politics of Slave Heritage in the Western Cape, South Africa,” Journal of African History 50 (2009): 23–40.

(49.) The original essay on slaves by James Armstrong in The Shaping of South African Society, 16521820, eds. Richard Elphick and Hermann Giliomee (Cape Town: Longman, 1979), was revised by Armstrong and Nigel Worden in The Shaping of South African Society, 16521840 (Cape Town: Longman, 1989).

(50.) Andrew Bank, The Decline of Urban Slavery at the Cape, 18061834 (Cape Town: Centre for African Studies, 1991); Wayne Dooling, “Slavery and Amelioration in the Graaff-Reinet District, 1823–1830,” South African Historical Journal 27 (1992): 75–94; Wayne Dooling, Law and Community in a Slave Society: Stellenbosch District, South Africa, c. 17601820 (Cape Town: Centre for African Studies, 1992); P. van der Spuy, “‘What, Then, Was the Sexual Outlet for Black Males?’: A Feminist Critique of Quantitative Representations of Women Slaves at the Cape of Good Hope in the 18th Century,” Kronos: Journal of Cape History 23 (1996): 43–56; Kirsten McKenzie, Samuel Eusebius Hudson at the Cape of Good Hope, 17971807 (PhD diss., University of Cape Town, 1991); and Michael C. Reidy, “The Admission of Slaves and ‘Prize Slaves’ into the Cape Colony, 1797–1818,” (MA diss., University of Cape Town, 1997).

(51.) Scully, Liberating the Family?; Kerry Ward, “The Road to Mamre: Migration, Memory and the Meaning of Community c. 1900–1992” (MA diss., University of Cape Town, 1992); and Helen Ludlow, “Missions and Emancipation in the South Western Cape: A Case Study of Groenekloof (Mamre), 1838–1852” (MA diss., University of Cape Town, 1992).

(52.) George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

(53.) Rick Watson, The Slave Question: Liberty and Property in South Africa (Hanover, NH and London: Heinemann, 1990); and Rick Watson, Slave Emancipation and Racial Attitudes in Nineteenth-Century South Africa (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

(54.) Clifton Crais, “Slavery and Emancipation in the Eastern Cape,” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony, eds. Nigel Worden and Clifton Crais (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 271–287; and John Mason, Social Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003).

(55.) Johan Fourie, “The Quantitative Cape: A Review of the New Historiography of the Dutch Cape Colony,” South African Historical Journal 66 (2014): 142–168.

(56.) For example, Susan Newton-King, “Family, Friendship and Survival among Freed Slaves” in Cape Town between East and West: Social Identities in a Dutch Colonial Town, ed. Nigel Worden (Johannesburg and Hilversum: Jacana Media and Uitgeverij Verloren, 2012), 153–175; and Nigel Worden, “Indian Ocean Slavery and its Demise in the Cape Colony,” in Abolition and its Aftermath in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, ed. Gwyn Campbell (London: Routledge, 2005), 29–49.

(57.) Patrick Harries, “Middle Passages of the Southwest Indian Ocean: A Century of Forced Immigration from Africa to the Cape of Good Hope,” Journal of African History 55 (2014): 173–190; and Patrick Harries, “Slavery, Indenture and Migrant Labor: Maritime Immigration from Mozambique to the Cape, c. 1780–1880,” African Studies 73.3 (2014): 323–340.

(58.) Yusuf da Costa and Achmat Davids, Pages from Cape Muslim History (Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter, 1994); and Nigel Worden, “The Changing Politics of Slave Heritage in the Western Cape, South Africa,” Journal of African History 50 (2009): 23–40.

(59.) Nigel Worden, “Cape Slaves in the Paper Empire of the VOC,” Kronos 40 (2014): 23–44.